Duck Duck Book

53 – bird’s eye views
04.14.2008, 8:02 am
Filed under: art & entertainment

Bird’s eye views : historic lithographs of North American cities / John W. Reps.
New York : Princeton Architectural Press, c1998.
[MCL call number: 769 R425b 1998; one copy, no holds;
one copy reference only at Central Library]

In the nineteenth century, there was an enduring fashion for prints showing cities and towns. From the early 1800s to the early 1900s, as many as 2,400 American towns were immortalized in prints showing industry, progress, order, and civilization, with nice bits of park scattered through the middle and prosperous farm- or rangeland outside. Many of these views show towns and cities from an imaginary point high in the air, presenting the city from its most attractive angle. John W. Reps’s Bird’s Eye Views reproduces 100 or so panoramic views of cities and towns from across the United States and Canada, all of them beautiful, and each one thoroughly annotated with information about the contents of each print and the context in which it was made. After two introductory essays (one on the history of viewmaking, one on the development of urban communities), the prints are presented in four chapters organized by geography.

Many of the bird’s eye view prints of western cities emphasize their geometrical street layouts: Salt Lake City, Prescott, San Jose, and San Diego are all shown with orderly square city blocks of identical size dominating the visual field. Port cities’ waterways are often in the foreground of their portraits: two different prints show Seattle from an imaginary point high above Elliott Bay, with wharves in the foreground, humming with activity from countless ships and trains; while an 1876 view of New York City places Manhattan Island in the center of the picture, stretching from Battery Park right at the viewer’s fingertips all the way along the island to the newly minted Central Park, with the Hudson and East Rivers full to bursting with busy ships. If the city is really famous for just one thing, that might be the focus of an artist’s design: Washington, DC is shown in two views in which the United States Capitol dominates so much that the rest of the city might as well not even be there, and a third in which it is clearly the largest and most important component of the urban landscape (especially since the Washington Monument is shown only half-built).

If a city has railroad yards, port facilities, or smoke-belching factories, they are highlighted to show industry and progress. If it boasts a beautiful sea coast, a graceful arching river, or white-capped mountain views, they will be shown to their full magnificence. If there are many lovely buildings, the bird’s eye view may be surrounded with little portraits of the most noted structures to indicate the heights of culture and seriousness the city has attained. Although these views of towns and cities were not typically produced as advertisements for city governments or real estate developers, they certainly do shout loud and clearly, “Look at this beautiful place! It’s clean! It’s prosperous! It has everything you could want and more — and see, we can prove it!”

Although Bird’s Eye Views is really very large for a commercially published book (33 x 38 cm when closed), the lithographs are reproduced at much smaller than their original size. No doubt this was unavoidable, but it is incredibly frustrating, since part of the charm of the prints is their incredible detail. If you would like to see a selection of city and town bird’s eye views in a format that allows you to examine them more closely (albeit without Reps’s helpful annotations), you might want to visit Panoramic Maps : 1847-1929 at the Library of Congress’s American Memory Project (Washington, DC : Geography & Map Division, Library of Congress, 2007). Many of the lithographs in Bird’s Eye Views are also part of the Library of Congress’s digital collection, and I’ve provided links to digital copies of the lithographs mentioned above, when the views were available there.


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